CHARLOTTE – Wide receiver Steve Smith has made progress with his sprained knee, but the Panthers' all-time leading receiver will not play in the regular season finale at the Atlanta Falcons.
"Steve actually improved a lot," head coach Ron Rivera said. "And in Steve's way, he basically said, 'If I had to, I'd play this weekend.' He probably couldn't, but he'd have tried."
When asked if Smith would be able to play next week if the Panthers play in the Wild Card round, Rivera replied: "I'd like to believe so."
With Smith inactive, Marvin McNutt will serve as the fourth wide receiver. It will be the first time McNutt has been active since joining the Panthers in October.
As for the top three receivers – Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and last week's hero Domenik Hixon – Rivera is eager to see how they respond with Smith sidelined.
"I'm interested, I really am," Rivera said. "Brandon has done nothing but get better and make strides as a football player. It'll be good to see as far as Ted Ginn's concerned and Domenik Hixon, quite honestly. These three guys have done some really good things for us. This will be an opportunity to really gauge where we are."
Running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) and defensive tackle Colin Cole (calf) have also been ruled out.
With Cole out, Rivera said three defensive ends with slide inside to play defensive tackle in certain situations.
"We'll do like we've done in the past," Rivera said. "Greg (Hardy) will have to roll (inside) a little bit. Wes Horton will roll a little bit and Frank Alexander as well."
Rookie safety Robert Lester is questionable after having his ankle stepped on toward the end of Friday's practice.
"They took an X-ray just to be sure," Rivera said. "He should be fine."